Why support for Anna Hazare via social media doesn’t go beyond lip service
‘We support you, Anna. We are with you.’ Hours before Hazare’s scheduled fast against corruption, messages like these sprouted across social networking sites faster than most of us could say ‘Armchair Activist.’
Support groups were set up on Facebook (approximately 20 dedicated to Hazare at last count), hashtags like ‘#isupportannahazare’ clogged timelines on Twitter, and a large number of status messages turned into minor opinion pieces denouncing democracy.
This prompted many to praise the role of the social media in the ‘movement’ against corruption. Stepping back from the mania, however, revealed a decidedly underwhelming picture.
It also helped show what bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell meant when he wrote his much-debated article a year ago (The New Yorker, October 4, 2010) titled ‘Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.’
Debunking the notion of social media reinventing social activism, Gladwell’s essay attacked the weak ties around which social media platforms are built.
He pointed out that while Twitter was a way of following people one has never met, Facebook was little more than a tool to manage acquaintances.
Campaigns propagated by these platforms worked simply because they didn’t ask too much of participants. Worse, he believed participants tented to act only when actions didn’t involve financial or personal risk, and when they were guaranteed social acknowledgment.
A cursory look at social media taking up Hazare’s cause is enough to lend credence to Gladwell’s arguments.
On Twitter, for instance, only one in 25 tweets was a definitive call for action (‘Come to Kranti Chowk to protest arrest’). Some ‘activists’ inexplicably put up telephone numbers of the Prime Minister’s office and exhorted followers to ‘call and tell them you support Hazare’.
Someone created spreadsheets detailing cities where protests were being planned, with contact numbers. When this reporter logged on, there were just 12 cities listed. Another ‘Support Anna’ spreadsheet listed 32 names and email IDs.
This isn’t to say social media has had no impact whatsoever. One could argue that one of the reasons for Hazare and his supporters garnering the sort of publicity they have is the kind of space discussions about them currently occupy online.
Unlike the UK though where newspapers recently carried reports of social media mobilizing cleanup organizers in the aftermath of the rioting support for Hazare has been largely restricted to ‘liking’ pages on Facebook.
The ‘Join Anna Hazare’s Fast’ page has 30,407 likes and features comments such as ‘We give 100% support.’ Assuming 30,407 people have pledged to fast, this is hardly revolutionary in a nation of 1.21 billion.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines activism as ‘a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action.’ Support via social media is neither vigorous nor direct.
A passionate Facebook status update is nothing more than a passionate status update. Worse, large numbers ‘liking’ a cause sometimes perpetuate misinformation, or tend to make some causes seem superficial.
It may be closer to the truth to say that the revolution Anna Hazare is hoping for may be ‘helped along’ by social media. For now, that ought to do.